A fictional story I wrote after taking a walk in the White Clay Creek State Park with my husband, Eric. I let my imagination run wild...
It was a cool day in late winter with a steel gray sky overhead and cool but mild temperatures in the air, so I wanted to get out and enjoy some walking without traipsing down the same trails I usually frequented. Morning had been quiet at home and I needed some time under the open sky to clear my brain and invigorate my lungs. My amenable husband, Adam, actually suggested we try a park a few miles from our home known for its vast acreage of horse and walking trails. After a short drive of about twenty minutes, we were in the heart of horse farm country where large expensive homes sat flanked by dilapidated homes with enough trash in their yards to fill up half a landfill.
Why is it that people don’t mind broken-down cars, old boats, broken toys and general junk decorating their front yards? How are they not ashamed to claim the spot as their home? Do you think they keep a desire to clean it up in the back of their minds and just never get to it? I hope so because it is really discouraging for me to think that the mess does not bother my fellow citizens, I pondered.
We drove around to find the right entrance that my husband promised me was better than all the others and everything seemed fine as we parked our car in a graveled lot positioned conveniently near the road at the top of a long graveled driveway into the woods. The air was chilly enough to warrant a hat to keep the cold damp air from freezing my ears. I packed a water bottle in my pocket as I always do, as if I might die of thirst over a couple of hours. The drive sloped away from the road on a gentle incline but I took notice because slopes and I are not good friends. Although I love hiking through the woods, I have lived in the flatlands of the coastal areas too long to develop any kind of leg muscles for hills and I knew that coming back, I would have to climb the slopes.
Once we entered the woods, I felt better almost immediately as the tall sycamore, walnut and oak trees got taller with every step we took down deeper in the valley. Our feet meandered down and around on a winding pathway and I was amazed at the cleanliness of the path, since in my experience most parks have walking trails littered with water bottles, candy wrappers and bits of Styrofoam. Not this one. Even the bushes were trimmed back to keep us free from snags and scratches. Massive trees fallen from recent storms lay across the ground, left by the park service to provide food for the worms and bugs and the occasional bird that didn’t mind nesting near the ground. I understand that parks like to leave the fallen trees to create a more natural atmosphere for the park wildlife, but as for me, I am just glad they keep the trails clear for foot travelers like me.
After a mile or maybe a little farther, we found ourselves on level terrain and we could hear the sound of rushing water close by. Thankfully, the ground was moist but not muddy. My husband, only too restless to get to the water, led us through some undergrowth off the beaten path to find an opening to the river. Mind you, it was only about forty degrees -- not a nice balmy day for walking along a river or getting our feet wet in the small streams of water finding their way down to the river. I did have waterproof sneakers on, but I still tried to avoid the hidden pools of water. I had watched enough television shows about surviving to know that you are not supposed to get your feet wet when you are in the woods.
The river was running fast, not storm fast, just enough to make some nice whitecaps and splashes over the rocks. We could see deep into the clear water, which actually surprised me since most of the streams in the area tend to be a little murky from runoff. We looked to see if any fish were visible, but as usual, the fish were either well camouflaged or hiding under the rocks. Enormous trees lay on their sides in the water as if they were resting with their roots sticking high in the air, like large feet with skinny toes. Water carved fresh channels out of the sandy banks where the gnarled roots once held the soil together, making our stepping a little precarious.
My good husband, Adam was anxious to get his line into the sparkling water so we hiked up and down the bank, pushing aside the blackberry and wineberry canes to find the ideal spot. Fishing was his passion almost to the point of an obsession but I figured that as far as hobbies go for a guy, I had no reason to complain. There were a lot of things that he could be doing with his spare time that would not include me or even worse, might actually be detrimental to our relationship. So, I fished a little too, especially when the kinds of fish we were trying to hook were edible like brook trout, yellow perch, rockfish, even the occasional sunny or bluegill, as some folks call them.
He found a perch that he liked, overlooking the water with enough height to be able to toss his line across most of the stream in both directions. I watched him for a few minutes and then told him I was going to explore a little more on the paths nearby. He offered his second fishing pole to me, but I declined until later when I had decreased the level of wanderlust running through my veins. I guess I am a treasure hunter at heart, always looking to see what is around the bend, in case I might find something unusual, extraordinary or just free. Besides, I was getting chilly by standing still as the cold damp air rising up from the water below was working its way into my feet and hands.
I, like the obstinate fool I can be at times, wandered away from the safe surroundings of the river and my husband and headed up a path that twisted and turned up a hillside bordering the river, doing what every good hiker knows not to do -- hiking alone in an unknown area. I enjoyed the peace and solitude of walking alone and liked to convince myself that I was a careful person and well aware of my surroundings, as if all the other folks that ran into trouble on their own in the woods were ignorant or unprepared. I was in a park, surrounded by towns, surrounded by highways, not in the remote wilderness of Alaska, I would argue with myself, proving that I really did know better.
The footpath was marked with horseshoe prints, bike tire treads and of course, where there are horses, you will have the ubiquitous droppings. Rocks stacked together reinforced the edges of the trail especially around the sharp turns, while trickling streams crossed the path eroding the clay soil leaving only washed rocks exposed. A few of the bramble roses were prematurely sprouting red buds along their arching canes as if they were trying to beat the competition for early spring growth. Some bedraggled ferns held on to their greenery along with some clumps of grass left for the foraging deer. I hadn’t noticed any deer droppings even though the sign coming into the park had a printed schedule for managed hunting during certain seasons. Overall, the trail was pretty boring, but I was alone for a few minutes and that’s what I enjoyed.
At that time of the year, everything was brown except for the occasional pine or holly tree and there was no view to be seen when I reached the top of the hill, so I started back down to the more picturesque area along the stream to join my contented husband, Adam.
No I did not notice the cracks along the edge of the trail where the rainwater had cut under, forming an illusion of security, and yes, I did slip and faster than I could think. I just dropped off the path. My arms reached instinctively for passing branches and my fingers clawed into the muddy hillside until I found myself sitting in a cavernous hole formed behind a fallen tree. I didn’t move for a few seconds as if to give my senses a chance to catch up with the fall. Slowly, my brain began to take stock of my condition, evaluating each part of my body like a physician. My head was fine except for the loss of my sunglasses, my fingers bent without pain although my fingernails felt the pressure of the packed mud beneath their surface. The palms of my hands were scratched from the briars, but nothing too deep and my elbows seemed fine except for a slight scrape along my forearm. My shoulder hurt slightly so I didn’t move it. I looked down and was concerned to see my leg bent in the wrong direction. Strangely, I felt no pain and had no desire to move it. In fact, I didn’t even want to look at it, just sit very still, even though I was not actually sitting, more like dropped into position.
Gradually, I covered all of my injuries. No one was around to offer me a hand up or to ask how I was doing. I felt foolish and alone. I hadn’t even had the time to muster a scream as I fell, so no one heard me and I was living out the reason why I shouldn’t have ventured out on my own. The stupidity of my reasoning aggravated me and I felt angry with myself for being so proud and over-confident of my own abilities. Mustering up my strength, I tried to force out a yell for Adam, but as I sucked in the air, a sharp pain in my ribs stifled my breath. I tried again but more slowly to manage the pain but my voice only sank into the mass of roots looming over me in front and the muddy hillside on the back of me.
After a time of cursing, swearing and generally venting my anger and frustrations, I realized I needed to try to move my legs to reposition my body. I already realized my leg was broken but my good leg was starting to go numb folded under me. Exploring the area around me, I figured the best bet was to hold onto a root and lift some of my weight up so that I could swing my good leg down. I reached for a seemingly strong root and pulled, only to have it bend as if it were made of soft plastic. Okay, my first plan didn’t work, so I moved on to find another plan and craned my head around to look up at the hillside behind my head. Slowly, I reached up, ignoring the twinge of pain in my shoulder and my hurt ribs, trying to move as slowly as I could without damaging anything else. My fingers scoped out a root running horizontally across the hillside and clamped on to it as I tried to lift my weight without the use of my legs. I cursed at my weight and my lack of muscle as the pain shot through my knee and my leg. Why hadn’t I stayed with Adam? I had no recourse but to keep trying, moving as slowly as I could bear, until with all the strength I had, I forced my good leg down. I did scream then and the words that people use to describe excruciating pain didn’t come close to the sensations that my body experienced as my broken leg bore my weight for just a few but agonizing seconds.
Nausea washed over me and grief poured through my tears but slowly, over a period of thirty minutes or so, the new position eased my pain. I never wanted to move again and I was more than content to rest right where I was. With my good leg down, my hips were better aligned to take the pressure of my spine and if I didn’t move a muscle, I could bear the pain in my broken leg. My arms were still holding the root above my head but as they started to tingle, I slowly undid my fingers and brought one arm down. My good leg found a rock to press against and I carefully brought down my second arm, holding it as I did so, to ease my shoulder pain. I was satisfied for the time being and rested my head against the cold soil. Calm settled over me allowing me to close my eyes and actually almost fall asleep.
The quietness of the woods woke me as I realized that darkness was creeping in and alarm that Adam might not find me crossed my mind. I called out a couple of times and listened intently for a response. Once, I think I heard his voice calling me, but the sound of the river was playing tricks with my imagination. I was disappointed to look up and realize that even if he did come up the pathway, he would not see me unless he actually leaned over the edge.
My back and fingers were cold and my one foot was almost numb but I tried to ignore it telling myself that help would come soon. I was wearing a fleece jacket over a sweatshirt, which although fine for the daytime, was not enough for the chilly night air that would probably drop below freezing. So much for thinking that I was prepared, I thought to myself. I knew Adam would be sick with worry and it made my stomach hurt that I couldn’t call out to him. Why was this was the one time I left my cell phone in his truck? I was so disgusted with myself and humiliated at my inaptitude.
As darkness fell over the open sky above my gulch between the tree roots and hillside, despondency came over my emotions like a cold wet blanket, drowning out any sense of optimism. Doubt that help was coming and questions of what would happen if no one found me, and how long I could bear this predicament flooded my thoughts. I cried until I realized that the crying was just making my eyes hurt and my ribs poke me painfully with each breath. I came to terms with the fact that I was spending the night in the hole and calmed my imagination to think of warm beaches and a soft bed. I gave myself sips of water from my water bottle knowing that I needed to ration it in case I needed it later. Shivering was awful but I couldn’t stop it no matter how I tried to breathe calmly and relax my muscles. I knew I was probably going into hypothermia but hoped that I could weather the night.
I don’t know what time it was when I awoke from a fitful dream. Something woke me up besides the shivering but I couldn’t pinpoint it. A flash of light caught my peripheral vision or at least I thought I saw something. I strained to see in the darkness but after about ten minutes, I concluded that my eyes were playing tricks on me. The adrenaline that woke me calmed my shivering and I tried to bend my good leg to give my foot a little circulation. I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, but the sharp pain reminded me to leave my legs alone, so instead I pulled my face inside my sweatshirt to conserve the little warm air given off by my breathing. Something stirred in the undergrowth like a deer startled and I listened as it clambered away. Was it my brain playing tricks on me again or did I hear voices? I listened intently. I could hear cars from a distance highway, their engine rumblings traveling through the ground and again voices, more than one off in the distance. My ears ached with the strain of trying to capture every little sound. My own heartbeat was interrupting the silence making it hard for me to focus on the voices and figure out if they were coming closer to me. As the minutes ticked by at what seemed like hours, the voices came closer.
I heard them then, calling my name and shouting. Once in a while, I would see the beams from their flashlights cut through the darkness looking for me and I wished I could just grab one. My hopes were high and I called back to them almost cheerfully, knowing they would soon rescue me. I ignored the realization that the voices were getting farther away and continued to call out, hoping that Adam was with them listening for the sound of my voice.
The disappointment was harsh, even harsher than earlier. I was so exhilarated and happy that they had found me, that coming back down to the realization that I might die again hurt worse than I wanted to bear. Anger at Adam for not finding me, disappointment that the searchers were not thorough enough, bewilderment at a God that would let this happen and then a slow apathy of my not being even worthy of a rescue. Why should they help me? I brought it on myself and deserved my ill fortune.
After a period of punishing myself, I found that once again, my only hope was to hope that tomorrow someone would rescue me. I wasn’t ready to stop living and a slow deep sleepiness washed over me. My shivering had finally stopped and I felt kind of warm as my thoughts drifted in and out of dreams. Sometimes, I could actually feel myself being lifted up and out of the gulch and other times, I felt like I was flying, looking down on the whole park, zooming over the trails. I could hear my voice calling for Adam and sometimes for my kids as the dreams carried me in and out of reality. Lights were starting to flash in my face and I asked them to please turn them out because I was trying to sleep but my words were slurring and they couldn’t understand me. Then Adam was putting his face in front of me and talking as if he was in a hurry or something was happening.
The pain in my leg woke me up with a fit of anger, but I was too tired to figure out why. My leg was feeling a hard object and I realized the voices were not in my dreams but in reality. Lights were flashing and ropes were dropping over my hidden crevice and men’s voices were talking all around me. Several hands lifted me out of my safe position and the pain in my leg made my voice come to life for a second. I felt a smooth, curved board beneath my back and the delicious feeling of weightlessness as my muscles no longer had to hold my body in the braced position. Who were these wonderful people that would come to find me in the middle of the night? Warmed blankets and then the lights of a truck and concerned faces circled my perimeter. Adam, beautiful Adam was there with tears running down his face, holding my cold hands next to his skin. I knew he would find me -- he had to. I loved and needed him so much. I loved everybody on that truck with intensity previously unknown to me. I wasn’t worried about the bumpy ride back or the pain shooting through my thigh or the pressure of the straps hurting my ribs and my shoulder. I was with wonderful people whom I didn’t even know. But I was just so shiveringly, agonizingly cold.
2015 copyright. Use only with permission.